Thursday, December 8, 2011

A brand new Vision - a triumph for branding

As some may know, I have been involved in a brand project that brings together two long-established superannuation funds in Australia - Equipsuper and Vision Super. Naturally, the question on everyone's lips was what will the new fund be called? What will the logo look like?

As people involved in brands already know, the name and logo is merely the end of the brand journey, with a whole bunch of other stuff preceding it - qualitative and quantitative research, identification of shared values and culture, SWOT analysis and the list goes on. I prefaced the first Brand & Communications Group meeting by saying I did not want to see any crayons or sketch pads in the room until the real work was done.

It's now common knowledge that the merged fund will be called Vision, dropping the 'Super' name from the original fund name. This was the best decision on a number of metrics, but how we got there is what convinced me that it was so.

When the funds announced the merger about 18 months ago, the guidelines provided to the B&C Group was that the new fund should have a new name, in other words should not adopt either of the previous names. There were a number of factors driving this, which are largely irrelevant, except to say the instruction preceded any evaluation of brand metrics or objectives. 

So the B&C Group's brief was to come up with a new brand name and the process was established accordingly. However, as a precaution, we did drop questions about current names into the stakeholder research conducted for us by CoreData.

Elmwood Australia was commissioned to undertake the brand development work based on the research findings and other investigations. And that's where the rubber hit the road with the naming challenge. We invited staff to submit names, Elmwood came up with some and I found myself sitting in front of several screens on weekends creating and evaluating names and their availability. Elmwood mobile devices regularly sprang to life at 5 a.m. with 'what about this?' questions.

As directed, we spent a few sessions with the usual butcher's paper sheets of names stuck around the wall looking for new names. Vision was up there as an option, but was struck out early, for all the wrong reasons.

But over several weeks, it became clear that nothing we had come up with was superior to Vision, which captured a number of the core brand and cultural values established by the research. Most of all, none of the new names retained any sort of connection with the 80-year heritage of the two existing funds. In particular, the research had established there was greater attachment to the Vision name than the Equipsuper name across existing stakeholder groups, including staff.

Of course, a new name would have clearly signalled a change both internally and externally and the recommendation and approval of the Vision name has created its own unique challenges - in particular that of ensuring that the current Vision staff recognise that the name, the visual treatment of it and the brand narrative surrounding represents a fresh beginning. Our internal communications campaign is therefore headlined 'A brand new Vision'

Despite this challenge, Vision is absolutely the right name and I am delighted to say that, a key derivative from the brand project has been the articulation of a clear vision for the brand and a guiding 'Big Idea' to which the new organisation will subscribe.

I also am pleased that the executive and boards of the existing entities had the courage to put aside the initial directive and to hear and approve the brand recommendation on the basis of a thorough investigation of key metrics, a recognition of the value of heritage and the adoption of a challenging guiding  idea for the future.

To hear more about this and see the new visual identity, I'm sorry you'll have to wait until mid-next year when the merger is completed and the 'brand new Vision' comes to life.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How wrong can you be?

After reading an report last week that Coke's idea of putting names on cans was one of its most successful campaigns ever, I have to swallow my pride and admit I never thought it would be a goer.

But you cannot underestimate the power of personalisation. The trouble some have gone to to find a can with their name on it is unbelievable. Serial tweeter and Deloitte Digital CEO in Australia, Pete Williams, tweeted last week that he'd finally found a can with his name on it. "Straight to the poolroom," he tweeted (the Aussie version of the trophy cabinet).

So congratulations to the people at Coke for their much greater appreciation of consumer behavior than yours truly.I have one challenge though - could you please set up a digital can printer in retail outlets so we don't have to freeze our hands searching frosted for a can pre-printed with our names? Now that would be fun because we could progress to nicknames and other terms of endearment.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The career-limiting Christmas wine list

Right outside our office window over the past year, we've witnessed construction workers walking along a crane gantry in quite high winds - a high-risk occupation by any measure. But I was tempted to swap places last week when by far the most daunting task of the year hit my office desk - selection of the Christmas party wine list.

This is an extremely career-limiting task. Roughly 50 palettes head down to a Southbank restaurant for the annual bonhomie that is the feature of the end of year Christmas party. And because we're in the process of merging, I've suddenly inherited a few additional palettes - with opinions! 

So the pressure is on - balancing the lolly water palettes of the Sauvignon Blanc set, with the 'sophisticated' tastes of the Pinot group and the raw Aussie bluster of the big bold Shiraz bloc. Add to this a 'salary cap' of $50 a bottle in a place where the cheapest drop is $45 a bottle and you are in very challenging territory.

These days, the task is not made easier by the proliferation of wine labels. I don't know what it is with the wine industry, but new 'brands' seem to pop up like daisies during the year. Gone are the days when the choice was basically Ben Ean Moselle or Asti Spumante for the more discerning (sorry, that was university days).

So why does this task fall to me? Yes, I'm responsible for brand in our organisation, but that doesn't mean to say I should be across every new label appearing in Dan Murphy's or Vintage Cellars. No. There is something far more fundamental.

You see, I'm relatively old, perceived as in the twilight of career by everyone except the Federal Government who believe I should work until they carry me out feet first to save the drain on the public purse. The logic is, therefore, that if I stuff up the Christmas wine selection, I have least to lose - less career years lost, diminishing prospects of promotion not too severely impaired.

There's also the view that caginess born of long experience will ensure I read the Gold medals on the bottles properly to ensure that the accumulated awards are from the Adelaide or Sydney wine shows, rather than the Bullamakanka Ladies Local Produce Awards. 

I have picked five wines for this year's luncheon, of which I will have to consume a reasonable quantity as I anxiously scan the dials of colleagues partaking of the first drops for signs of approval or disdain. 

For the record, I've picked the following varieties: a Prosecco (because the boss likes it), a WA Sauvignon Blanc Semillon (I had to add something to the SB to manage reputational risk), Pinot Gris (NZ) for the Pinot set, a Pinot Noir (the Pinot group is influential) and a McLaren Vale Shiraz (my favourite region for this variety because I bloody deserve it).

The Christmas wine list - not a job for the faint hearted!

Just another bum on a seat

Tonight I'm doing something that, as a football tragic, I'd normally never do unless Liverpool were visiting - attending one of those pointless 'friendlies' between a half-decent overseas club team and a local team struggling to score.

Yep. I'm about to watch LA Galaxy play Melbourne Victory. More correctly, I'm expecting to watch David Beckham play Harry Kewell. With due respect to others in those teams, that is how my teenage daughter describes the event.

She finds football boring, preferring the local free scoring goal fest that is AFL. But the Becks brand (not the beer, you idiot!) has worked its magic and we're going to experience 'His Presence' rather than attending with any hope of seeing an exciting contest.

Reports are that over 35,000 tickets have been sold for this event, I estimate about 25,000 more than if LA Galaxy were playing Melbourne Victory. Oh hang on! That's what we're going to see. Almost forgot.

So at $60 a throw, the Becks brand has added about 25,000 bums on seats and $1 million big ones to the gate. And wait a minute - it's live on Foxtel. Bit of an overstatement. 'Live' is not how I'd describe my expectations for the game. So Uncle Rupert and Telstra have also subscribed to the Becks phenomenon to boost the coffers of Football Federation Australia.

Of course, this is all small potatoes to Becks. At 36, he's made hundreds of times more than tonight's gate takings and this is probably his last game for LA Galaxy before he heads to Europe to convince some aspiring team that he can still flog more merchandise by merely appearing on the subs bench.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not slating Becks. I'm just jealous that brand BrooksieG is trailing somewhat in the financial rewards stakes. I played football years ago, but usually bent the ball out of play or wide of the goal rather than bending it like Beckham. There are few enterprises other than the trainers of Golden Retrievers who'll sponsor that sort of talent.

What's probably more concerning about the Becks phenomenon is, for my daughter. the allure is more about pecs like Becks rather than football skill. It's a worrying time.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Great news! I'm now drinking in the national interest!

I'm not a great beer drinker - the absence of grapes in the mix deters me. Nonetheless, when I do partake of the amber, my favourite brew is Coopers. And now, thanks to offloading Fosters to South African brewer, SABMiller, yesterday for a cool $10 billion, when I drink Coopers, I'm drinking in the national interest - crusading to keep the last great Aussie beer brand in local hands.

As I jump in my chariot of choice and drive over to Dan Murphy's to collect a carton, I know the crusade will be a long one. Coopers only has 4% share of the national beer market. So it will be guerilla warfare, with a few diehard defenders of Aussie brands sniping with their credit cards at the overseas behemoths.

The great thing going for Coopers is you can consume more of it, because you don't need to eat with it. All the food's contained in the bottle, with that familiar sediment churning through it to nourish you as you drink. Someone told me that you can never get a hangover from drinking Coopers because it's naturally top fermented - no added chemicals to give you the headache. Even though I heard this about 30 years ago, I find it hard to read the ingredients information with the bottle in my mouth, so cannot verify the veracity of this claim.

Yes, it's a comforting thought knowing that the internationals haven't really developed a beer that you can eat chilled. Chilling is mainly confined to what the Europeans would call lager. Beer they drink warm. Any pom will tell you that Aussies are not beer drinkers. We're all lager drinkers. So we've sold the South Africans a dud - they've bought a lager company when they thought they were buying a beer brewer. Aussies have never been good at disclosure.

Are we sad that another icon Aussie brand is heading overseas to live? Has Fosters gone the way of the Speedo? Will beer in stubbies go the way of men in Stubbies. Remember Stubbies? Those shorty cotton shorts that gave everyone a peek-a-boo at some of Australia's greatest nut crops on building sites? Let's hope we exported the roadshow as well as the brand!

Seriously though, it seems we're good at creating brands, but not good at hanging onto them. Doing that is a bloody hard exercise when your domestic market would fit in a schooner and you've failed to really make decent inroads internationally.

A Fosters spin-off, Treasury Wines, is now attacking the Chinese market and called for Aussie winemakers to resist the temptation to pour cheap crap into China and to build the market based on quality and, therefore, sustainable margins. With some of the brands, like Penfolds, in the Treasury Wines cellar, it's no surprise they're encouraging this approach.

In any event, I now have a job to do. Christmas-New Year beer will be there to be eaten, not drunk. Coopers is it and my 2012 Coopers Crusade will begin. Let's drink to save a great Aussie brand.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Paving a path to the bleeding obvious

People much smarter than me tell me that the generation preceding my boomer group were 'Builders'. These were my parents' generation - people who remembered the deprivations of the Great Depression and the conflagration of World War II. So they were thrifty and did things themselves to save money. Compare this with the great outsourcing Gen X and you wonder how the boomers, who are stuck in the middle, go about things.

Well, I can tell you. For the past few months, I have been posted down on the Mornington Peninsula for days on end, doing it myself to save money. I recall keystroking through the pain barrier in August after the first four days of a marathon garden upgrade, which involves laying over 90 square metres of pavers. As I drank another glass of red to anaethetise the pain, I wondered how it would gel with Panadol Osteo.

Am I typical of the boomer generation - the generation that lived by The Who's iconic lyric 'Hope I die before I get old'? As I get older, living the lyric is getting tougher. Insane decisions about laying pavers, with all that precedes, symbolise the refusal to get old, to prove you still have what it takes.

But you don't. Let me tell you, after four days 'on the tools', I could no longer cut a piece of broccoli. The nerves and muscles charged with that task in my left hand would not allow me to push my fork into the broccoli. The nerves and muscles in my right hand would not permit me to open the screw top on the wine bottle, although somehow it happened - wine over broccoli trumps mind over matter any time.

My wife thinks I'm a nutter, which explains why we filled in separate census forms in August, but my 'Builder' generation parents cheered from the sidelines, even though they also suspect I might be a nutter.

The great thing is that being down there doing landscaping stuff put me back in touch with good Aussies. I just completed an excavating apprenticeship with a local guy called Rutz. Forked out nearly four big ones for the privilege, but education isn't cheap is it? Consulted with another dude, Tim, about putting poles in the ground for shade sails. He was formerly a corporate marketing bloke, but cast that aside, took a big pay cut to work for a builder for a couple of years before striking out on his own. You gotta like doing business with guys like that.

I think the Builders generation had something. Have a crack and see what you can do. While I took leave to landscape in frontier land, back at work they were cranking out a message about the stock market schemozzle, trying to deliver confidence and certainty amid irrational investment markets.

But down there driving a Dingo digger for two days made me impervious to stock market shenanigans. There, I could sink money into something and see the outcome. Yep. Rutz didn't come cheap, but his advice didn't carry a disclaimer and everything was crystal clear.

When it all comes down to it, the generational thing is bollocks. All anyone wants is clarity and direction. We all want authenticity and outcomes. The biggest source of failure in brand and marketing is failing to satisfy these basic customer needs.

Friday, September 2, 2011

New evidence - Audi is a 'chick magnet'

As a 50-plus male, I intuitively knew that driving an Audi made me more attractive to women, but until this year I could not produce any tangible evidence of it. Yesterday evening, I completed the jigsaw as, for the second time in seven months, an attractive young woman ran into the back of my Audi.

It was about the same time of day, driving home from work. In both instances, I was stationery at a set of traffic lights. Imagine my delight at being able to jump out of my car again on the way home and have a valid excuse to capture the mobile phone number of a woman half my age! Try it any other time and the result would lie somewhere between a slap in the face and jail.

It's a methodology I wish I'd thought of about 25 years ago, but the problem is that there were no mobile phones then, I was driving company-provided Fords and half my age would have been about 14, but you get my drift.

Perhaps it never happened because even 'chicks' in my era were unattracted to Fords, or people driving them. The blue Ford oval didn't have the hypnotic effect on them that the four linked circles of the Audi logo clearly do as they approach them at intersections.

Last night as I perused and considered the cost and inconvenience of my car being a resurgent chick magnet, I felt relieved that, even though the young woman concerned had revealed her insurer, she hadn't asked for mine. Australian Pensioners Insurance (APIA) is not the brand name you want to parade out there when you're trying to impress a 20-something woman.

Yes, at every point in life, you encounter the power of brands. On the one hand those you're proud to be associated with, on the other brands that actually match your profile but reflect terrible truths about you that are best left unspoken.

As for the documented evidence of the allure of the Audi brand for young women, it's all at APIA, where all ageing dudes secretly accept the discounts for being senior members of the community. Perhaps APIA will start tightening underwriting requirements soon, insisting that older folks reduce their risk by associating with less sexy brands.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

America's new copy writing sweatshops

If you're a writer and you're knocking together 5-Star online endorsements for products and services for $5 a pop, then you're totally out of your mind. And if you're hiring writers to do this sort of stuff, then your brand is seriously in need of a makeover, or soon will be.

What got me started on this rant was an article I read today reporting that some companies in the US were hiring writers to write favourable 'reviews' for five bucks each. After reading this blog, some may not identify me as a writer, but nonetheless I stick doggedly to the proposition that it is a professional category with which I have some affinity.

Even back in the good old days of freelance journalism circa 1980s, a decent journo could pull something like $150 a thousand words from even the stingiest magazine publisher, so $5 for an endorsement wreaks of serious under-payment, even if house prices in the US have collapsed and the Tea Party refuses to spend any more. Come to think of it, perhaps the brand needing the cheap endorsements is the Tea Party - if not endorsements, then perhaps endorphins, but I digress.

You see, the thing with these $5 mercenaries is that they're providing three things - words (presumably coherently crafted), a personal endorsement and, as a by-product, great risk of trashing their personal brand in the process. Willing to put all that skill and reputation on the line for $5? I'm certainly not!

For their clients, there is the small matter of brand authenticity, widely regarded as the currency of social media. What happens when they're found out, as they surely will be? Already, companies like Amazon are commissioning sharp software dudes to develop algorithms to identify and weed out fake endorsements. It will be interesting to see if, in the process, they publish the names of the businesses who have chipped in their $100 for 20 or so "recommendations".

Their only hope is that unsuspecting customers driven to these businesses by the rave reviews have an extremely positive brand experience when they make contact. Because if customers are savvy enough to source third party recommendations online, they're certainly smart enough to go back online and express their contrary view if the experience does not live up to the promise.

There are plenty of websites dedicated to publishing consumer reviews. Perhaps we're about to see a flourishing business based on reviewing the reviewers! Oh dear ... who are we to believe? My head's starting to hurt.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Celebrating Brand Melbourne

I've never been to Vancouver and the great news is that now I don't have to because I'm already living in the "World's Most Liveable City". Yep, we finally knocked the Canadians off their pedestal.

The problem is that the title is bestowed by the Economist Intelligence Unit which, to me contains an oxymoron given the performance of economists in getting things right lately. One thing's for sure though, economists have clearly emerged as a collective of sports lovers and culture vultures, because these are two of the criteria that helped get Melbourne over the line in the comparison of about 140 cities.

I put Melbourne's success down to that funky logo we developed for ourselves a few years back - the cubist one influenced by our architecturally renowned Federation Square. Another contributor was our former 'can do' State Premier, Jeff Kennett's decision to rename Flinders Park, which became Melbourne Park to highlight to international audiences where the Australian Open Tennis Championship is played. The EIU may never have known this otherwise.

And then,of course, there's the controversial Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park, which is drifting from a daytime event to being held under lights to align it with European TV viewing time and increase Bernie Eccleston's ability to increase broadcast revenues accordingly.

By international standards, Melbourne is not a cheap place to live, thanks to a booming Australian Dollar and zany real estate prices that are putting the dream of home ownership out of reach of many Gen Ys. Just ask them who they blame for this and they'll quickly point to the Boomers who, thanks to the tax benefits of negative gearing have bought property like there's no tomorrow. Bottom line is that many Gen Ys will enter the real estate market through inheritance rather than saving.

When I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne in 1981, the city was still to identify the advantages of Port Phillip Bay. Suburbs like St Kilda and Williamstown were down at heel places, full of 'character' and all that goes with that. Now they're highly sought after, trendy locales, with house prices to match.

The city's infrastructure has improved to transport people more effectively around it's horseshoe plan, wrapped around the top of the bay. Much to the chagrin of public transport advocates, we have dramatically improved freeway links, opening up the Mornington Peninsula as a commutable proposition.

I think this is one of those rare occasions when the economists have got it absolutely right. But then, I'm biased. I live here, am employed, own my home and like sport. I even use the toll roads to get around more quickly. Like anywhere, life's good when you able to take advantage of the things your city offers.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Back to brand basics in the backyard

As previously noted, I've been doing a bit of landscaping recently, which involves the task of selecting providers of various products and services, such as excavating, shade sails, equipment hire and various types of dirt, like road base and sand.

Not knowing anyone in the area is a good way of evaluating the marketing-sales funnel at work. The usual starting point is aggregators - whether on or off-line. In my case, the search was principally online. Here, Google leads you to more aggregators like TrueLocal and other lists of owner-operated businesses, many of which still don't have websites.

So it becomes a call and hope process - phone call and hope they turn up on the day to quote. In most instances they did arrive - it being winter in Melbourne and most in the outdoor reshaping business being a bit hungrier than in the warmer months.

Presentation quality varied significantly among potential providers - some bringing their dogs to help quote, others arriving after being held up due to an 'emergency' callout. Some gave the impression that the emergency call out was the alarm clock's fifth attempt to get them out of bed after a hard night.

Quotes, if written at all, are provided on letterhead and the backs of business cards with graphic design that would struggle to get in a school child's portfolio. In other words, the sales and marketing collateral usually left much to be desired and in no way helped the purchase decision.

One guy I did hire was the excavator, largely because by accident or design, he had managed to secure the internet domain, which I didn't think was a bad effort for a one-man operation supported by a choice of a 5-tonne or 1.5-tonne bobcat. He didn't strike me as a social media guru of any sort, but perhaps I misjudged him.

Apart from that, what did drive me through the marketing-sales funnel to purchase the other stuff.  As I look back, it came down to my assessment of the authenticity of the guys (there were no gals) that I met. Personality, service approach, likely capacity to work with me to resolve my planning and resourcing issues.

It made me think that while we run all kinds of research, analysis and creative workshops to develop corporate brands, perhaps we overlook the bleedin' obvious.

I chose these guys based on criteria that were simply about their capacity to support me as I strived to achieve my goals. They were walking-talking brands, winning business and referral on the basis of delivering what was expected and, in one case, a lot more. Perhaps that's really all there is to successful branding.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Is 'Made in China' the world's biggest brand?

Been doing a bit a landscaping lately, so buying odd bits of equipment here and there has become part of every weekend. Last weekend it was a screeding bar with handle fitted. If you don't know what that is, then just ignore the technicality and read on.

What was unique about this piece of equipment was that it was 'Made in Australia'. I mean, whoa! is that a point of difference or what? It was pretty basic. No moving parts, but it was powder-coated, something we still seem to be quite proficient at here. The rarity of the piece put me in two minds about whether I should use it on the landscaping, or display it in the house as a rare sculpture.

This was the first thing I'd bought in weeks that didn't bear the 'Made in China' tag. It makes me wonder whether 'Made in China' is in fact the world's biggest and best-known brand. Even if you made a product in Australia, you might still label it 'Made in China' to leverage off the awareness!

Even something as basic as a long-handled spade is "Made in China'. I compared several of these, picking the one I thought was the best quality, only to read 'Made in China' on the sticker. So quality is not a reliable indicator of sourcing. 'Made in China' is no longer a poor relation to other superior monikers. Or is it?

What about those 'Great Wall of China' utes promoted by that irritating: It's not good. It's great! catchline?
Surely much better to buy a German-made car or, dare I suggest it, a home-grown product, than one of those. But, oh dear, look under the bonnet of your 'German-made' car and there's a decent chance these days that you may see the ubiquitous 'Made in China' sticker. The Germans have been very good at gaining a foothold in China in many sectors.

The bottom line is that 'Made in China' has become one of the most widely distributed labels in the world and, driven by a growing domestic consumer base, that's not likely to change any time soon. Whether you're shovelling dirt or hauling it, you're most likely going to be using 'Made in China' equipment.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Digital making corporate brands equal the sum of personal brands

I've been observing the activities of some individuals employed by quite large and well-known organisations who, through their own significant digital footprint, are building a personal brand that arguably outshines that of the organisation that employs them in the niches within which they specialise.

To me, this creates an almost symbiotic relationship between the employees' personal brand the the brand of the employer. It suggests that if certain individuals resign, there is a much greater risk for the employer that client and even wider relationships will follow them out the door. It also places additional demand on internal brand management.

It's an issue that many of our more open-minded, early adopter organisations in the digital space have not entirely thought through. At the outset, positioning these digitally fluent individuals as the faces of the organisation in online networks was a simple proposition. The individuals were credentialed and validated by the corporate brand that sat behind them.

But as the phenomenon of personal brand has rapidly evolved through digital media, organisational brands have become less relevant to the acceptance and credibility of the individuals that represent them.

It's an issue that's not going to disappear. In fact, it will accelerate as a greater number of employees are granted access to social media and other networks to converse on behalf of the company - whether as part of a deliberate strategy to build online brands, or simply using new forms of media to deal with day-to-day customer queries.

This trend will crystallise what many brand experts have argued for years - that brand starts internally, with total alignment of employee behaviour with brand values and promise. Organisational brands will increasingly become the sum of the collective personal brands they employ.

The implications offer enormous potential for the organisations who get recruitment, induction and behavioural modelling absolutely right. It presents enormous risk for those that get it wrong.

Humphrey Bear - A brand in need of a cuddle

I recall the days when the politically correct were calling for Aussie children's icon, Humphrey Bear, to be banned because he wore no pants. The other day I noted that, like the Emperor, Humphrey now has no clothes.

You see, the production company that owned the Humphrey Bear character went into administration a couple of years ago. The upshot of that is that Humphrey's most recent public appearance, after a two-year absence, was in 'For Sale' advertisement placed in The Financial Review by the company's receivers.

Question is - what is Humphrey worth? This is a crumpled brand that will need to emerge from hibernation and tackle a whole array of far more contemporary characters and distractions. And let's face it, the tail end of Gen Z and the emerging Gen Alpha are a pretty savvy and hard bunch to please as they practice their keyboard strokes from birth to engage with modern-day entertainment.

I challenge brand gurus to throw up some ideas about how they would tackle the rejuvenation of the Humphrey Bear brand. Does he need to rap with Eminem? Perhaps throw away the green waistcoat and climb into an Industrie ensemble? Perhaps enter the bear pit of The X Factor or Australia's Got Talent to re-establish his credentials? 

The sad thing is that any brand equity remaining with Humphrey is among the generations who were brought up with him - boomers and Gen X - neither of which is going to be of any value now. I even heard Kochie on Seven's Sunrise commenting this morning that he might be worth buying.

Now that would hasta la vista for Humphrey B - Kochie buying the rights and donning the bear suit for the Sunrise audience!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sex hardware - plumbing the depths

This is not strictly a brand story, but it took place in Bunnings this weekend,when my wife broke the taboo and accompanied me on the weekend pilgrimage. Being a Bunnings story qualifies it as a brand experience for me.

I won't bore you with the background to why I visited the plumbing department, except to say I was embedded in conversations with brass fittings when she asked me what I was looking for. I said there's no point in explaining and carried on.

I yielded on persistent questioning and advised I was looking for a 3/4 male into 1/2 female reducer. It was an inevitable response: "how can you have fittings that are both male and female. Last week you were telling me we had a male lemon tree, now you're looking for things that are both."

Another weekend warrior laughed as he overheard this, nodding knowingly in my direction - that sort of "serves you right, you should know not to bring them" look.

But worse was to come. She collared one of those semi-retired tradies Bunnings employs to help out deviant male-female shoppers. Having heard what I was looking for, he said: "Oh. You're after a nipple."

My wife was last seen heading for the car park. No way she was going to be seen at the check out with a trolley load of adult toys!

Monday, July 25, 2011

The AVEs now AVE nots

Phew! Ogilvy PR has just announced that it's dropping the Advertising Equivalent Value (AVE) measure of PR effectiveness, simultaneously declaring the 'age of spin is dead' (  Am I missing something here? I thought that was abandoned as a metric years ago when something called the internet was invented!

Basically, the AVE looked at the value of editorial space (either column cms or time) relative to what it would cost to purchase that space to drop in an advertisement. Depending on who you talked to, whose hand you were shaking and other variables, there was usually a multiple applied on the basis that editorial space was worth more than advertising space.

But the disaggregation of media with the much greater control it gives to information consumers has long made a mockery of all this. The blunt instrument of circulation, readership, TARP and so-on naturally inflated the estimate of audience reach and, along with it, the value of advertising space. All the multiple did was hyper-inflate the value of editorial space.

That's not to say, high quality editorial in a respected publication that favours your cause is not worth more than its space in gold. It is. But in the age of infotainment and advertorial sections, to generally apply a rule of thumb to the value of editorial relative to display advertising is a ridiculous concept.

Compare the various blunt instruments of audience reach with the more precise targeting and measurement accessible through online media and the shortcomings of AVE and similar are immediately apparent. No wonder we're seeing big shifts in media budget towards online - the accountability for campaign success has never been greater. This, of course, will inextricably also apply to television and, ultimately, print as these channels converge and interact with mobile devices.

And, in the same announcement, here's another revelation from Ogilvy PR that caught me by surprise: "More than ever before, brands must remain authentic as audiences are looking for more engagement that interests, excites, amuses and provokes thought." It's almost like the PR industry is just discovering authenticity and engagement. No wonder it's struggling to define itself. Consumers have been onto this for decades.

If it's taken leaders in the PR industry this long to discover this truth, then it's no wonder PR has failed to own the brand space, as it should have done. With brand tightly intertwined with reputation management, the PR industry was the logical facilitator of brand strategy and implementation. But it's not. Specialist brand agencies have filled the space and are talking the authenticity, cultural alignment and all the other things that should be part of the PR business' bread and butter. Even advertising, graphic design and human resources companies have positioned themselves in this space.

There are PR companies that are engaged in this activity and that are doing it very well. Carrying the legendary David Ogilvy's name would suggest Ogilvy PR is likely one of them. But the PR industry has never effectively positioned itself as the natural provider of these services.

The elite sports in PR have been issues and crisis management, political lobbying and communications that have historically involves some level of 'spin'. But often, spin would not have been required if companies, or politicians, had delivered on their brand promise in the first place and evaluated every decision through the prism of their commitments to, and reputation with, customers and other stakeholders. PR companies could have assisted clients with the alignment of commercial activity with brand promise.

Brand in its broadest sense is where PR should have started its journey. And that journey has always involved authenticity rather than spin.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Update on News Corp's brands

Just noticed marketing guru, Mark Ritson, has put up an excellent article on possible implications of the crisis for Murdoch's House of Cards.

Why News Corp's House of Brands is starting to crumble:

Rock brands - from Clapton to clapped out

As usual this morning, I was professionally negligent while driving to work. As a communications bloke, I should have taken advice presented at a seminar run by Don Chipp's brother and former Melbourne PR doyen, Alan, while I was a young PR turk.

Alan told us that, as public affairs practitioners, we shouldn't be listening to pop music as we commuted, but rather ABC Radio's venerable morning current affairs, AM, or an informative chat show on 3AW - OMG, has Neil Mitchell been around that long?

So this morning, I was negligent, iPod playing Cream of Clapton through the car sound system. This is music played by a rock icon - a 'Guitar God' of the 1960s and 70s. Eric Clapton was a walking, talking rock brand and it got me thinking about the lifecycle of his 'brand' rather than his band over the years.

It started with a wailing, yet thoughtful electric guitar. The man nicknamed 'slowhand' (watch a video clip!) and who released an album by that name, giving his all to drive the guitar sound over the top of Ginger Baker's drums in Cream. Cream gave way to Derek and the Dominos, then 'God' moved into a solo phase, then to participating in big London-based charity gigs accompanied by other stars in decline like Bill Collins, who hit his heights in partnership with Peter Gabriel (he of Sledgehammer fame) in Genesis before going solo.

And finally, we have Clapton mainly doing 'unplugged' gigs - slipping quietly into the night. In fairness, I'm probably doing him a disservice, as the fraught and heartfelt Tears in Heaven after the tragic death of his son was a fine and, no doubt, enduring acoustic piece. And after all, with some exceptions, we do like more peace in our lives as we age.

How does this relate to brands? Well, at their height, there are no brands bigger than rock celebrities but, no matter how talented a la Clapton, they fade with changing tastes and styles. I try to tell my daughter this about Justin Bieber! They try to reinvent over time, but the boundaries of their success are defined by talent and adaptability. And there are many times you wish they'd just stop trying to look cool at 65. In the rock world, there is such a thing as 'shelf life' for personal brands and I wonder whether this also applies to corporate brands.

Sure, many have stood the test of time. Coca-Cola is still one of the world's best-known, but has battled to adapt to changing tastes with all kinds of hybrid products - to the point where the product around which it was built is just one of a stable. Apple is enjoying a resurgence but, after Jobs, how well will it keep adapting and is it only one breakthrough innovation away from being threatened?

The hot brands of the moment, Google and Facebook, operate in one of the most chaotic and anarchic environments ever created, the internet. What are the threats to their longevity? How far away is another breakthrough product from someone else? I've even heard the suggestion that the 'internet is dead' and apps are the way of the future. Personally, I think that's a little way off and it depends whether you regard the internet as communications infrastructure, or as the user interface, but that's for another discussion.

Should companies recognise that brands really have a defined lifespan beyond which the resources required to sustain them become unviable? Look at the auto industry. How much money has been invested to keep Saab alive? What about the Rover saga, the brief foray into reviving it in the 1990s was an abject failure, with only Land Rover surviving as a BMW subsidiary?

Baby boomers are the sole reason that many brands and bands survive. When our generation goes, the Beatles will be about as popular as Tchaikovsky and perhaps less well known. As one of that generation, I am doing my bit in February to keep the flag flying for old rockers, taking my 13-year-old daughter to Roger Waters' The Wall. (For non-cognizentia, Roger Waters was a key figure in Pink Floyd. Who's Pink Floyd? Forget I mentioned it!)

How I convinced her to attend with me, I don't know. I suspect it's something to do with the fact that she wants to remind me that 'We don't need no education. We don't need no thought control.' She loves Another Brick in the Wall for those words. I suspect that sometimes we might be better letting old brands and ideas fade into the sunset, lest they return to haunt us.

Will Rupert's papers give content free as News goes to war?

It's all very well charging for content when your brand's flying high, but Murdoch's News Corporation is now in a pitched battle to restore a modicum of lustre to both it's brands and the founder's family name.

As family members and a former executive appear contrite before a UK Parliamentary Committee, one thing they have on their side is plenty of outlets through which to pitch their side of the story. But some of their most respected mastheads are already restricting content to paid-up subscribers only - think Wall Street Journal and The Times, both of which you want in your corner when your stock has dropped nearly 20% in a little under a week and your reputation possibly by even more.

While it's likely that the Murdoch clan members and even some senior executives were unaware of the extent of the scandalous actions of a few journalists, the issue for News Corporation is that somehow the organisational culture, particularly on the UK's notorious tabloids, at worst encouraged executives to turn a blind eye to phone hacking and other practices or, at best, allowed individuals to run the risk of causing serious reputational damage through lack of checks and balances.

As News Corporation emerges from the immediate crisis, it will do well to remember that brand and reputation start from within organisations. That's where the process of restoration must begin.

News Corporation is a house of brands, some of which, like the newspapers mentioned previously, will recover from this quite quickly - guilt by association won't last forever. Transparency in the change process via these media could play a significant role in the brand rebuild. A good start might be to maximise their audiences by dropping the subs for their online coverage.

Friday, July 15, 2011

TAXI or SMSF - which will take you further?

I couldn't wait to write this entry as a matter of record that I had an interesting and insightful conversation with a Melbourne taxi driver yesterday evening. It wasn't about the Prime Minister, carbon tax, boat people or religion - it was about money. Specifically, it was about the money in the taxi business.

I use a regular group of taxi drivers who operate a network within a network as quality service providers. All mobile phones, spooks and airport drama. There may even be sex involved, although I haven't encountered it yet.

Yesterday evening's driver owns his license and cab. Another driver I frequently use has four licenses. These are guys ranging in age from 45 to late 50s, the sort who should be starting or well-advanced in executing financial plans to ensure a comfortable retirement. As self-employed bods, they are probably candidates for a Self Managed Super Fund (SMSF).  The thing is, that these guys don't need an SMSF - they're driving around in it.

Yesterday evening's conversation revealed that:
  • A Melbourne tax license is worth $500,000 (if you have four you therefore have two million big ones);
  • A good cab and driver delivers revenue from $180,000 to $200,000 a year;
  • Cabs are serviced about every three weeks for about 60 bucks (oil and filter change), by some guy who literally operates a drive-through service operation with 20 mechanics (probably another multi-millionaire);
  • The cab lasts about 6.5 years;
  • Despite Ford Australia's protests, you can service a six-speed transmission and not replace it every 200,000km (this is not a financial insight, just an interesting one to anyone like me who use to spin for Ford).
So an owner driver shuttling you around town is probably richer than you are, possibly grossing 720G a year less expenses and sitting on a debt-free capital asset outside of the family home that most of us would give our left nut for (sorry girls). Why debt-free? Most of these are tightly held from the days when 'G' was better known as the first letter of 'goat' rather than 'grand' and licenses were dirt cheap.

And retirement planning? Farm the cab out to some other dudes willing to tour the town with punters of unknown origin. The money (slightly less of it) will keep rolling in.

So how do we market super to these high net worth cabbies? They just love the drive-through service guy. Perhaps a drive-through set up with an interactive join and contributions screen, free boulevarde coffee mugs (if you don't know what I mean, visit LA) and a long-range client breathalyser warning device, might be the go.

On the other hand, they might just tell you they've already got it sorted better than you have. These days the a TAXI license seems far more lucrative than an AFSL (Australian Financial Services License).

Meter's running, I gotta go...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Education and advice is the only hope for financial services

As custodians and promoters of financial services brands, we all talk about customer engagement. But in an age of disaggregated media, are we kidding ourselves and should we be striving for something different?

No one LOVES their bank, or their super fund, or any other financial service. Financial services organisations are merely channels through which customers or members can reach out for concepts they're really engaged with - like buying a home, buying a luxury car, planning a holiday.

In Australia, government regulation and an obsession with minimising costs rather than delivering value is commoditising financial services, which means customer attitudes towards financial institutions resemble their relationship with their electricity provider more than their BMW dealer.

Anyone who regularly conducts research in the financial services space knows customers value security, investment returns and accurate communications and reporting above all other factors. It boils down to - "I don't want to lose my money, I want to earn as much interest as possible (or pay as little, whichever is applicable) and I want you to report to me how much I have." The rest really doesn't matter.

Yet in financial services, we all try to build a brand association more like that enjoyed by the BMW dealer. The problem is that the BMW dealer can deliver the BMW. The dealer is the gatekeeper to a tactile experience that satisfies all the expectations and senses (I am actually a long-time Audi devotee, but I'm just trying to be objective!).

A financial services institution cannot deliver the lifestyle to which we aspire. The link between the service and the dream is quite distant. In the retirement savings space, for example, the delivery date is so distant that most people cannot associate with it - largely because no one regards themselves as 'old', or even ageing.
In a sense, financial services brands have tried to bridge the gap through use of imagery. The trouble is, lifestyle imagery is difficult to align perfectly with everyone's visualisation of the idyllic life. The image of being happily retired, walking hand in hand along the beach at sunset is, for example, certainly not me. And even if it was, I find it hard to make the connection between my financial services provider and the dream.

What I want is a safe place to park my money and to have instant access to it whenever I want it - preferably online, at minimum through a hole in the wall. My relationship with my financial institution is a website and an ATM. I really don't care what label it has on it, as long as it works and there's plenty of access points. The ANZ campaign promoting ATMs that follow you around is great from this perspective. They're selling convenience and access and that's exactly what I want. The only thing is, that when I cannot find the promised ATM when I want it, I get severely pissed off.

The only touchpoint with any chance of emotionally connecting with customers is in the area of education and advice. This is where it gets personal and financial institutions can focus on dreams and aspirations at the individual level to help people make the connection.

But this creates a paradox for most financial services businesses, which are actively pushing people away from face-to-face relationships - out of branches and onto the web, ATM or phone. Software cannot replace direct person-to-person contact. Would you want to date an avatar? Sorry, don't answer. But you get the point, I'm sure.

Education and advice, delivered person-to-person is the most powerful relationship a financial services organisation can construct. That's why I cannot understand why financial planners fear the growth of industry funds. They have a strategic advantage, if they know how to capitalise on it. It's called a personal relationship.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Families with lessons for brands

I trundled all the way from Melbourne to Albury for lunch yesterday. To give you an idea, the 750km round trip is the equivalent of driving Melbourne to Adelaide. An amazing feat of endurance at the best of times, but at least trebled by the fact that I had three generations of family women in the car - daughter, wife and mother-in-law. And they wonder why I like coming to work!

But bragging about my stamina is not the purpose of this missive. The motive for yesterday's expedition was a family gathering of about 50 in-laws and out-laws in a town in which there is a thriving Lebanese community with Aussie roots going back to the early 20th Century.

I had not previously heard of or seen most of the people there, but what struck me most was their amazing capacity to argue, rebutt and bond simultaneously. It shouldn't be surprising really. The Lebanese have been traders going back to Phoenician times. Once a deal is struck, the decision is accepted as fair and everyone moves on to the next bargain.

There was an amazing dynamic in yesterday's four-hour gathering, from which a lot of companies could learn. While the far-flung relations had forged opinions on the merits or otherwise of family activities for many decades, these things were debated and dealt with internally. In fact, at every gathering of this type I have ever been to, I cannot recall one where differences weren't completely put aside, commonalities re-declared and unity of and clarity of family commitment firmly established as the party finished.

I'm sure any organisation that bottled this and apply it to brand strategy and management would do very well.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Zara - the Apple of fashion?

How neglectful of me to miss commenting on the BIGGEST EVENT TO HIT MELBOURNE THIS YEAR - the opening of our own Zara store. Only months earlier, Melburnians sat smugly in their lounge rooms, dismissive of the rampant consumerism portrayed by the thousands of Sydneysiders as a similar event occurred in their city. Then we went into the same frenzy!

I can recall a similar 'happening' in Melbourne in the 1990s. Richard Branson won't thank me for reminding you all of the 'Virgin Megastore' opening in Bourke Street. ROFL as I think of the crazy notion of a megastore full of music CDs - especially with the hindsight afforded by the phenomenal success of iTunes and more infamous music download and shareware sites. By the way, what did happen to Brash's?

As Zara, the flagship of the Spanish fashion armada hit our shores, in other parts of town, stores in the Colorado Group's fashion stable were closing their doors. Various marketing dudes and receivers (who know lots about marketing!) piled in on the act to describe how Colorado had lost its way, along with other brands in the group, like the venerable Mathers footwear chain, JAG and so on.

Colorado had been brushed off the plateau of outdoor apparel by brands that had simply driven a crampon into their space, taken a firm grip and clambered over them. Brands like Kathmandu come to mind as owners of the space that Colorado should have secured long before.

And JAG - what a sad mess they made of that. I remember buying JAG in the 1970s. If memory serves me right it was a brand set up by Adele and Rod Palmer. I remember the high quality of the JAG range in those days. Much of it was made in Australia. In fact, there were a few brands around back then that carried locally made lines. A bit more expensive generally, but high quality.

Unfortunately, JAG just became another in the conga line of Chinese garment distributors that proliferate in retail these days. Yes, they all have their 'unique' designs, thanks to the busiest people at fashion launches these days, illustrators who have to get sketches to China by SMS by the end of the night. The result for designers: Originality 1 v. Commercial Advantage 0. Sort of like watching Arsenal play beautiful football, but never winning a trophy!

It will be interesting to see what Zara does to maintain the rage. Positioned as a retailer that brings the latest fashions to market fast and cheap (thanks to those busy illustrators!), its a position that could easily be challenged by other stores if they really focused on it. Let's face it, Target has been doing the same thing for years with Stella McCartney.

Generations flying by quicker than I can blog

Social trends guru, Mark McCrindle, posted two separate items recently that said:
  • The last of the Gen Ys are in their final years of school meaning an 'all-Gen Z' school population; and
  • Generation Alpha has officially kicked off (that's the one following Gen Z for non-cognizentia).
I can vouch for the first being a proud slave to a Gen Z daughter. I think I recall saying in a previous blog that if marketers thought Gen Ys were hard going - wait until you hit Gen Z. They're the ultimate tech natives. The only difference between primitive man and them is that their savagery is directed only at deferred gratification, things that don't work as they should, and mobile phones that don't tidy their room for them.

Recently, a colleague of mine went on maternity leave - the result being the issue of bubba photos for immediate distribution around the workplace. I looked at this example of Gen Alpha and wondered how different we really all start out. The eternal question about whether how we turn out is governed more by what we're born with or the environment we grow up in.

Our Gen Alpha sample looked the same as most Gen Z catalogues that I've seen. In fact, it didn't look greatly different than the old boomer pix, except for the latter's monochrome reproduction. Gen Zs would actually argue that as we lope around in our navy blue trackie dacks we live up to the monocolour start that we had. (I've moved into purple recently to try and overturn this misconception.)

Nonetheless, I wonder what unique marketing challenges Gen Alpha will present? They'll respond to sensory cues that we haven't even dreamed of yet. Email will likely be dead and buried, replaced by cryptic Twitter code, illegible to any previous generations. They may Google by telepathy. Apple will have reincarnated Steve Jobs to develop the iHand, a phosphorescent skin that fits like a glove and glows to display downloads from their Google telepathy. "Can't shake hands 'cos you'll change my browser settings".

The employers of choice will be those who pay them more to stay at home as governments, congested infrastructure, office rental and environmental preservation kill off the city commute. In fact, we may not have employers, just a population where everyone can search for the best talent and skills to hire on an hourly basis.

Hard to believe that Generation Alpha won't, like all before it, be a product of its environment...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Messing with the mind of a weekend warrior

At some point in the past two decades, men no longer visited the hardware - they only went to Bunnings. These hulking, green and red 'big box' hardware stores did something to men that the general store counterpart, Costco, could never do. Perhaps if Costco put on a sausage sizzle on weekends it might solve the problem. But back to the Bunnings experience ...

The long-awaited rival to Bunnings has hit Australia. A joint venture between supermarket supremo, Woolworths, and US-based hardware giant, Lowes, has taken shape in the form of the 'Masters' hardware chain. Although it can hardly be called a 'chain' (more like a couple of links right now), Woolies has ambitions to open 150 locations in pretty short order. The big blue stores could open in a suburb near me anytime - which will present me with a dilemma that goes to the heart of my only retail brand loyalty.

Will the temptation to become a 'Master' of the DIY landscape rather than a mere dabbler in things best left someone else be enough to tempt me out of my green box into a blue box? Will the sausages be of the same quality? Will I find myself flitting from one store to the other progressively chipping 10% off the lowest price I can negotiate in each?

It will be interesting to see how Masters deals with the challenge of being second into the market to take on a brand that has become a byword for hardware. It's hard to shake brands that have embedded into everyday language. And for that matter, it will be interesting to see how the changes Bunnings has been making over the past few years in preparation of the arrival of Masters work.

As a Bunnings browser, you see plenty of tangible evidence of brand repositioning. The changes are substantive at store level. DIY flat pack kitchens, floor coverings, bathrooms - My God, the renos are already half done for you before you leave the store!

And then there's the stock rationalisation. Among the changes, minutiae like the removal of one brand of sprinkler system valves (come on, you must have noticed that!) has occurred. Thanks to my bizarre interest in reading about retail business, I have known about Bunnings strategy to systematically rationalise stock - keeping the better quality, fast movers and ditching those with an unhappy sales history - and have taken it on myself to keep an eye on it. Sad isn't it?

But for me, the important thing is that Bunnings hasn't given too much of a shave to the things that really count for the DIY Army. The 'Commando' section, where you can take a good hold on a few power tools and practice a few martial arts techniques on an imaginary piece of timber or masonry.

This is the zone where the imagination runs wild and many a weekend warrior finds pleasure in camouflaging themself in the forest of drill bits and grinding wheels, while the spouse and kids grapple with lesser decisions like whether the cheaper potting mix is as good as the dear stuff.

To my mind, there's no doubt about it. Masters has got the task ahead of it to dig us Bunnings veterans out of a DIY fortification to conquer new 'enemy' territory. Perhaps the answer lies therein for Masters. How about  they turn the whole big box hardware sector into a walk-in PlayStation for Dads and Grandads - 3D video game experiences where you can arm yourself with a power tool of your choice and take on the world?

You can see what's happening. There's now an internal brand battle going on that's messing with my mind. Time to go out and spend $2 at the Bunnings fund raising sizzler at the front door. A breath of fresh air and intake of a real bloke's dose of saturated fats and carbos will restore perspective. Go your hardest, Masters!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Guilty about unused store cards

I shouldn't be in marketing if I hate the retail experience to the point of having various store gift cards accumulating in my drawer.

How can you study and comment consumer behaviour if you don't participate? It runs against the spirit of my policy of not employing marketing communications people who declare that they only watch the non—commercial ABC television network. Even if you hate advertising, at least take enough interest to know what your competitors are doing!

It is consistent, however, that I have a growing guilt about the unused gift cards that have accumulated since Christmas and my birthday in February. All my shopping lately has been on the internet, where there is no human interaction, other than the occasional last-three-minute skirmish to outwit unknown parties to win the last bid on eBay.

Perhaps eBay could liven the process up by hooking up various bidders via skype - creating something of a cyber poker game. Imagine eBay addicts all hooked in for the final bid - all wearing reflector aviator sheds to conceal the whites of their eyes!

Ah. Forget about it. If I want that combative experience, why not just head downtown with gift cards in pocket? Cya tomorrow maybe if your down at Myer. Perhaps Jennifer Hawkins will be there to cater to myw every need - Not!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Step out and indulge in a Qwiki

Continuing the theme of my last rant about dealing with change, I have once again been surprised by a 'brand extension'. The latest version is a complete overhaul of my understanding of a Qwiki.

What's Qwiki? It's the latest plaything of Facebook founder, Eduardo Saverin, who's chipped in his share of US$8 million seed money with his YouTube counterpart, Jawed Karim, to change the face of internet search. Type in a subject and Qwiki hauls together all the videos and images it can find on the subject. Then it couples a visual palette of these items with scrolling text.

So how's this different, or better than, Google you ask? Well, Qwiki is like an audiovisual version of Wikipedia, featuring a button to "improve this qwiki". So you can add to the visual library. If you're familiar with another online toy, Tumblr, where you essentially construct a personal library of audiovisual images and texts that inspire you, you'll also see parallels with Qwiki.

Qwiki has announced plans to create links with Facebook and LinkedIn to enable you to write Qwiki profiles on yourself. It's much more preferable to build your own image online than put yourself at the mercy of Google that will dredge up every mention of you on the 'net - positive or otherwise!

The founders claim this hybrid of Google, Wikipedia, Tumblr, YouTube and social networking sites will be almost impossible to duplicate.

The opportunity for brand managers is that there is potential to 'improve this qwiki' by linking to audiovisual URLs of your own. As some readers may know, my daytime job is in superannuation so, inevitably, I entered this term into the Qwiki search last night. Believe me, based on that outcome, it's a green field opportunity for superannuation brands right now.

Qwiki may take a while to gain traction, but it's an interesting idea. And at this stage, it doesn't take much to give your brand the qwiki it deserves.

Am I just a grumpy old man?

I delved into the chocolate biscuit barrel the other day. My claws wrapped around a legendary Aussie Tim Tam and swept it upwards and out of the barrel and straight to my lips. I anticipated the smooth milk chocolate with its chokkie biscuit centre until ...

I bit into it and immediately knew something was wrong. Instead of the crispy centre, my tongue engaged with something akin to jam. Soft, fruity and ... just not a Tim Tam. Sorry, but these brand extension things often just don't work for me. The Tim Tam experience compounded a series of bastardisations of tradition - Coke with lime, vanilla and other flavours (doesn't complement Queensland's favorite mixer, Bundaberg Rum, by the way!), some sort of cream cheesed Vegemite, Uncle Toby's oats with embedded flavours.

Apparently, citrus-flavoured 'lite' Coke was very successful in Europe, cherry Coke was a hit in the UK and so on. There is green tea flavoured Coke in Japan. So clearly, I'm out of step. My reaction to 'jam Tams' is out of whack with the rest of the marketplace. My conservatism is starting to overwhelm me in my middle years, or perhaps is just poor taste.

I thought us boomers, with our discretionary spending power were the darlings of marketers. Then again, perhaps indiscretionary spending on credit card, the province of new generations, is far more appealing. They want a much richer palette to choose from. The boredom threshold with 'more of the same' is much lower and brands obviously have to respond.

So while I make a rare visit to the local store and seek out the declining shelf space dedicated to flavours of yesteryear, others are swarming like locusts over other shelves seeking out the flavours of tomorrow. I suppose there's some form of street cred associated with being an early taste adopter.

With Apple's iPad2 tucked under your arm, you have to seek out other 'flavours of the month' to go with it - something I should chew over perhaps next time I visit the supermarket! I love the new tech, yet my appetite for change obviously ends there. Yep. I am becoming a grumpy old man.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Research is not a substitute for leadership

I love market insights and am a passionate advocate for research. To top it off, I believe in the oft-criticized value of focus groups or, more broadly, qualitative research. But that's not the point of today's rave.

What I am even more interested in, is what organisations do with those insights and how they influence organisational behaviour.

This is because, like modern political parties, many organisations use research outcomes to fill their own thought leadership vacuums. I'm typing on an iPad right now. I wonder if this product would ever have seen light of day if Apple had been obsessed with research and risk management over innovation through thought leadership?

Good brand people are passionate advocates for creating organisational personas that reflect conviction from within. They build belief in organisations, then project that into the marketplace through words and imagery. Good branding means knowing what business or connections you're prepared to walk away from, as much as knowing to which groups you want to appeal.

This is where problems start. Not with the research itself, but with how it is applied. In a previous life in the auto industry, I saw and heard about many great product innovations that died on floor of what we called 'clinics', in which consumers compared future concepts with existing vehicles. We found customers didn't like certain elements of new designs and nervous executives often removed them, or watered them down, only for the car to look dated when it was launched two years later.

The risk of being handcuffed by research findings is related to consumers being conditioned by their recent experiences in the product category. Not being experts in future trends or being unable to anticipate their likely wants and needs a few years into the future, often makes them a poor source of insight into medium term brand positioning or product development.

Conducting research is like reading an annual report. It provides a snapshot of the marketplace at a given time. It provides insight into the current mindset of consumers and may provide a view of the scope of the task involved in taking them through the next stage of the journey. In terms of insights into the future, it is often only good for the next six months, a year at a stretch for some categories.

Organisations that fail to recognize this limitation are merely exposing themselves to a different type of risk - failure of leadership.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What's this thing called behavioural finance?

I love terms like 'behavioural finance'. They add academic and professional cred to spending enormous amounts to time pondering simple questions like 'why do people waste money when they should be doing something constructive with it?'.

It's pretty simple really. What people do with their money is dictated largely by the next crisis or the next temptation (tick the appropriate box) that they're facing. Retirement savings are always trumped by buying a yacht, which is in turn trumped by school fees, which in turn are trumped by feeding yourself or buying beer, which are in turn trumped by allocating your scarce resources to wherever your spouse directs.

All these things have one thing in common - in ascending order of importance, they're motivated by indulgence, obligation, necessity or fear. I left out the other big motivator, lust, as its links to spending are often controversial and best left untouched.

This goes many metres towards explaining why, in financial services, it's much easier to flog loans, credit cards, ATMs and cheque accounts than investments and pension plans. When the tussle is between instant gratification and deferred pleasure, I know where I'd place my winning bet 90% of the time.

It's why, in part, people love buying their own home. They have the instant gratification of owning it, living in it and showing it off to their friends, while they get the feel-good vibe of investing their money wisely, or at least spending it on tangible evidence of once having money.

So behavioural finance appears to me to only have the opportunity to kick in when rationality or a serious excess of discretionary spend allows you both instant gratification and deferred pleasure. I'm obviously too low in the Maslow Triangle to derive these dual benefits. Like most others, my finances rest low in the Bermuda Triangle, where misbehavioural finance rules.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

House of Brands idea great as long as they're not homogenised

Hard to believe, but my car's heading into the panel shop for the second time in twelve months because some buffoon, probably texting or in deep conversation on the hand set, rammed into the BMW X5 stopped behind me hard enough to push it a metre or so into me. "It happened so quickly," she said.

What? We were stationery for at least a minute before she thumped the Beamer without even hitting the brakes on the Honda borrowed from her mate. I'd love to have heard that conversation later in the evening!

Anyway, the point of this is that it's once again locked me in mortal combat with my insurer and fender benders. I have my preferred panel shop and the insurer has theirs, but we haven't got to haggling over that yet. No. We're still at the so-called driveway assessment stage. Sorry. We're not at the driveway assessment stage because, as a seriously overworked traffic manager at the assessment centre pointed out, the company has cut staff, while adding to its stable of brands.

It's an interesting take on economy of scale and its interface with a multi-brand strategy. The brand bit of it is all about creating products and services that appeal to clear niches in the marketplace. The problem is that, at the head of the brand household, is a corporate entity with its own commercial objectives. The challenge from the brand perspective is to ensure that each brand retains its own culture, its connection with its community of customers, while you're taking advantage of greater corporate scale.

My recent experience suggests to me that one Australian company that prides itself on its corporate "One Company: Many Brands" strategy is battling to maintain individual brand identity while deriving benefits from economy of scale at the back end.

In short, the company is using its multiple brands as a growth engine, but failing to recognise that, when customers need it most i.e. to make a claim, they come into contact with the back-end of its business - call centres, assessment centres and so on.

This week, for example, I rang to make a claim and abandoned my call after waiting 12 minutes entertained by jingles and lame messages. Several hours later, I rang again, my first contact with humans being some 10 minutes later. And cheekily, one of the hold messages said they understood I wanted to talk to a person, not a voice prompt. They were right. I did want to speak to someone!

Concluding the second call, I was informed that someone would call me in the next 24 hours to book my car in for a driveway assessment. 24 hours later - nothing. My wife tried to phone the assessment centre without luck. She drove over. The harassed traffic controller said they'd cut staff and were struggling to cope. If this isn't material for Undercover Boss, I don't know what is!

Believe it or not, this is not a whinge. You see, the assessment centre is something of a processing funnel for all the company's brands - economy of scale. The experience you get with one brand at this point is no different that you get with any of the company's other insurance brands.

Homogenisation of back-end support systems to achieve economy of scale makes absolute sense from a financial perspective. But companies that take this approach must understand that you can't homogenise brand experience - because the essence of brand is tribal and unique.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Gen Y - Conspire with your customers to make things happen

I find myself writing regularly about Gen Y and even the emerging Gen Z behaviours. Perhaps it's because I make a practice of trying to remember what a flawed dude I was in many respects as I passed various birthdays - a thing I think other boomers should do before ranting about 'no good' generations.

Why am I cracking on about it again? It's because we had a recent experience in our business that reinforced my view that Gen Ys do care about their retirement money and other things financial, whether they're deferred benefits or not.  It's just that they don't put up with crap, pumped-up complexity that the government and financial services sector specialise in constructing to ensure customer relationships are made as difficult as possible.

The experience I speak of was an initiative to visit one of our contributing employers over three consecutive weeks. Members of our team literally sat in the staff canteen one day in each of those weeks so staff could walk up and talk about sorting out their super. They weren't looking for advice, just happy to get it organised - generally to consolidate their money in a single fund.

The point is that most of these staff worked in a call centre - a notoriously transient workforce whose frequency of job change is reflected in the number of super funds various employers stick their money into by default. Significantly, most of them are at the latter end of the Gen Y spectrum.

If they were disinterested in what was happening to their money, we'd have had no appointments through the online booking form and no walk-ups when we got out there. Yet our two guys were flat out on each of the three days, stamping paperwork on the spot to confirm IDs, helping people to complete the relevant rollover form etc.

You're mistaken if you think Gen Y's obsession with interactivity is just confined to the online space. They welcome the opportunity to interact face to face. As social rearcher, Mark McCrindle, has noted many times, this generation values advice from mentors, even though it might not readily be apparent. If your business cares about doing their business with this generation, it just needs to show it values their business (and their generally smaller accounts) and break down the barriers to doing it.

Yes, Gen Y is arguably addicted to instant gratification. But if that's the case, don't sit in the office and whinge about it, get off your butt and engage with your customers in their environment - whether in their home or workplace, or online. You might be surprised at the experience. They just want to know how to get things done quickly and easily. What's wrong with that?

If the IT boffins and adminstrators are telling you that systems won't allow you to breakdown barriers to customer satisfaction and engagement, don't believe them. Conspire with your customers to find other ways to make things happen for them.

These customers are no different to any others. If you can give them a leg up to getting what they want, you may just find the key to a lifelong association.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Does product placement embed in my head?

I read an article the other day covering the 7 Network's decision to digitally place products in scenes throughout its top-rating Packed to the Rafters and Home and Away soapies. It got me thinking about the first time I can recall product placement and guess where it was? None other than American playwright, Arthur Miller's, Pultizer Prize winning play, 'Death of a Salesman'.

Why did this stick in my mind? I think only because in the school English exam I sat in the 70s I was asked what the use of the word 'simonise' signified. In the play, one of Miller's characters remarks that 'Willy used to simonise that car'. The correct exam answer was it was a word Arthur Miller had created to express the affection salesman, Willy Loman, had for his car. This was bollocks of course. The word was commonly used and derives from Simoniz, a brand of car polish launched in 1934 by George Simons. The reason I recall this product reference in the play was the deep disillusionment I felt about having to write crap in the exam rather than any favourable disposition embedded in me by Willy Loman.

So to 7's decision on product placement in these two shows, or placements in any other show or movie for that matter. I cannot see that digitally positioned packs of Kelloggs Cornflakes at the Rafter breakfast table, or a Fosters can down the pub in Summer Bay will convince me that I should try or reconsider these products. In fact, will I even notice them? As I peruse the supermarket shelves, will I be irresistably drawn to Cornflakes because Ben Rafter eats them? More likely, I'll be drawn to a product that tennis player, Pat Rafter, eats because he looks a thousand times better in Bonds than I do.

I guess it's all to do with alignment. I fit neither the Rafters or Summer Bay audience. Even though it envelopes me, suburban life doesn't fascinate me, and my prospects with babes down the bay started to diminish about 20 years ago. Problem is, I cannot really recall any product placement that has impacted me in any conscious way, except one - the Aston Martin DB5 in the Bond movies. Perhaps its appearance in no less than five movies in the years in which my testosterone flowed most freely has something to do with it.

I must investigate the psychology of product placement and how it really works. Luxury brands seem to indulge in this marketing pastime quite a lot, so perhaps has to be aspirational to work. With all due respect to the companies concerned, local cops chasing crooks in cars provided by Ford or Toyota just don't get me running to my local dealer.

I'll confess that I missed a great opportunity for product placement when the producers of the yet-to-be-released Mad Max movie contacted me about borrowing Ford vehicles to use in the shoot.

Sounded like a loony plot at the time and they did want to remove and replace panels from our pristine vehicles, so I declined. My worse brand promotion decision ever? Possibly, but perhaps it was good judgement because there were many fanciful chariots thrashing around the desert in that movie, but there was no readily identifiable auto brand that I could see.

Happy to hear from anyone who can present insights into the power of product placement. My mind is open, even if it's not retentive...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Gerry retreats from issuing consumer alert to web value

So what did Gerry Harvey achieve by joining Myer's Bernie Brooks in leading the charge in the ill-conceived campaign to promote a GST on goods under $1,000 bought on the internet from overseas? As Harvey Norman's share price plumbed new depths, his primary achievement was probably to alert the large majority of consumers who didn't shop on the net that there was good buying to be had on there.

Let's face it, the vast majority of Aussies don't tune in to the daily movements in foreign exchange, don't have confidence in buying remotely from overseas vendors and - surprise, surprise - seem to have made air-conditioned shopping centres the venues for regular village get togethers during the hot summer months (whether they buy anything in them is another question!). And I think Harvey Norman even has stores in many of these centres, doesn't it?

Another campaign 'achievement' was to damage his own personal brand, closely linked as it is to the retail colossus that carries his name. Hard for a guy who owns some of Australia's best thoroughbreds, the annual Magic Millions showcase on the Gold Coast and many other baubles to earn sympathy from  battlers who buy on the net to save money.

I wonder whether the retailers' GST campaign was inspired by the pre-election mining tax campaign, which seems to have gained more traction. If so, it failed to recognised a fundamental difference between the two issues. This is that the mining tax campaign focused on a single, politically sensitive issue - jobs. The GST campaign, by contrast, tried to build around job losses, but was derailed by a far more personal issue - big retailers wanted every little guy trying to save a buck to pay extra tax.

Less tax for miners to create more jobs versus more tax for individuals to save more jobs - it's an absolute no-brainer working out which one will gain public support. The retail campaign focused on tax and jobs, but in the rush to press failed to recognise where the point of hurt was.

Gerry is now taking a lower profile in the GST campaign, acknowledging it the communication was poorly executed, but that the campaign is still valid. Perhaps some retailers should glance across at what Bunnings is doing at the moment - reducing slow-moving and non-profitable lines, adjusting its inventory to make way for a move into high-value items like knock-down kitchens, carpet and so on. That's in anticipation of greater competition from the new Woolworths big box hardware chain.

Rather than moan in the face of competition, Bunnings is creating more reasons for people to visit its stores by stocking homewares supported by in-store advisory services. That's what retailing is about - convenience and a value-added store experience. They're things you find hard to match for less than 1,000 bucks on the net.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Social media challenge for superannuation companies

Scored some merit points yesterday, being recognised as the only one of four Twitter-recommended super funds with an active account i.e. that offered any content. This either makes me a genius or a fool, I haven't yet worked it out.

What it does show is that people notice and talk about it when companies enter the social media space and do nothing with it other than secure the real estate. In this instance, the question was raised about brand promise and authenticity on the part of the companies that held inactive accounts. While I think this is a long stretch, there is no doubt that in the minds of those who use these channels, inactivity reflects a lack of engagement, or willingness to engage.

Of course, in financial services we can trot out the excuses about the legal and compliance constraints around engaging in this space, but the reality is that we'e the only ones who care about these issues. Consumers generally don't appreciate the constraints and, quite rightly, argue that if you're not able to deal with them, don't enter the social media space at all.

I recently wrote an article for trade publication, Investor Weekly, in which I said the only way to deal with social media and devise a strategy is get in and have a go. Choose a senior communicator who understands the compliance framework within which your company has to work and hand over responsibility to that person to experiment with social media.

There are many things you can do within that framework - pose topical questions about your business / industry, publish factual announcements prompting a call to action (a link to your website), provide links to helpful third party articles and websites and so on. These are just a few opportunities presented by social media that do not carry compliance risk.

I have a few other remarks on social media:
  • Be smart. Do not engage via social media channels with customer-specific issues. Simply refer any individual inquiries of this nature to your traditional customer help channels like your call centre or a relevant expert on your staff;
  • Be patient. For a low-engagement product like superannuation, your build of fans or followers will be slow but steady. You will also experience little interaction, but don't give up; and
  • Be aware. Add social media to your update check list. When you issue a media release, update your website or release a new publication, ensure that you also update your social media sites and, where appropriate, provide links back to the information. Remember that you have a 140 character limit for tweets on Twitter, so use a free facility like to abbreviate your link and save on character count.
Social media costs nothing more than commitment if put into the right hands.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rediscovering service might be a retail solution

Big Aussie retailers are launching an advertising campaign in a bid to force the introduction of a goods and services tax on items costing less than $1,000 bought from overseas on the internet. Currently, these items are exempt from the GST applied to similar items sold in Australia.

The campaign is a furphy of the first order and the Federal Government is right to resist the call to tax these goods. In today's Business Spectator, Karen Maley, has summarised the relatively insignificant proportion of retail spending on internet sales. In addition, the dramatic improvement in the Australian Dollar relative to other currencies, particularly the US Dollar, has had a far greater impact than would the application of a 10% GST. As many consumers have noted already, the price differential between goods sold overseas and those sold in Australia is sometimes close to 50%, with the AUD at its current levels.

You have to remember that people are buying overseas despite the risks associated with goods being incorrectly delivered, or not delivered at all, and the issues associated with warranties that do not apply for even big brand products outside the country of purchase.

Rather than banging on about how unfair the application of GST is, the big retailers should focus on enhancing the shopping experience by providing knowledgeable and outstanding service. In most instances, this has been completely lost.

Case in point: My wife and I shopped for a barbecue yesterday. I am a frequent internet buyer, particularly of goods that I know quite a bit about. Bear in mind also that I usually buy online from Australian retailers or private sellers, as sometimes the price difference is insufficient to offset the added risk of buying off unknown overseas providers. But back to the barbecue.

I did research the internet first up and saw some cheap deals. But this was an item I thought I should see in the metal. I visited a small outlet, BBQs 'R' Us in Nunawading and one of the large retail outlets famous in the BBQ space. There was nothing flash about the small store experience, except the service and advice from Rachel. She really knew BBQs - even the difference in quality of the stainless steel used etc.

Contrast that with the 'big store' experience, where we interrupted a salesman's fly-past to ask about a BBQ similar to the one in the small store. "Is it on special?" Reply: "No. The specials are out the front." Nothing further offered, even though we had invited engagement on the BBQ we were standing next to.

The result, we phoned a deposit through to Rachel. Yep. Believe it or not, a Australian retail operator who had paid attention to what we were looking for and provided insights and great advice on what to look for. Indeed, she was so confident in her product that she welcomed us taking a look elsewhere. "You won't find better quality at this price," she assured us. She was right. We couldn't find better quality of product or service.

Herein lies the message for the big retailers. Don't shop around for the cheapest casual staff you can find. Invest in product training. Make sure the staff have more knowledge than I have when I visit the store. Train service providers rather than order takers.

The point is that shoppers allocate time to visiting your stores and there has to be a reason for battling traffic, finding parking and spending that time when it would be much cheaper and quicker to order on the internet.

And if margins are being squeezed, what's happened to the skills of 'upsell' and 'cross-sell'? These are outcomes that can only be based on in-depth product knowledge across competitor brands and vertically up and down product lines. If someone has to read the label on a television set to tell me how many HDMI connections it provides, they're merely doing something I could do myself. What's more, it's information readily accessible on the internet, so why should I visit a store?

The gift card challenge for financial services

Want a measure of brand performance? Consider counting the total redemption value of gift cards you sell at Christmas.

Based on a quick, but not necessarily representative, sampling of my family, Apple's iTunes cards streaked ahead of Osmosis cards (an Aussie retail chain specialising in cool surf attire) by some margin as the most popular brand among Gen Zs this Christmas.

Ask any tween or teen what they'd like for Christmas or a birthday and its a gift card for a favourite store or service. You see, gift cards are a form of empowerment for tweens and teens - a form of income that allows them to enjoy the shopping experience and buy things that they know their parents would never buy for them.

For the grandparents in our family, the gift card thing is just a reflection of laziness - a simple solution to the long tradition of hours spent trundling around stores carefully selecting presents that the recipient can return later, or begrudgingly wear or display (take your pick) whenever they drop around. They regard gift cards as soft option akin to just giving money when imagination fails.

But the kids think differently. My daughter fought long and hard going to a friend's birthday party recently that taking a present was something of an embarassment when she knew her friend would prefer a gift card. "I'll be the only one taking a present. How embarassing is that?" she argued.

With this passionate advocacy for gift cards, there's no doubt financial services companies will have to find a way to tap into the gift card phenomenon. Do you reckon a gift carded voluntary contribution into a superannuation account would be a red hot go?  Perhaps a $100 gift card to be spent with a financial adviser. Perhaps a $500 card to be used in home loan establishment?

Imagine the joy on a baby boomer's face at opening up one of these cards, beautfully packaged in a short-form Product Disclosure Statement with a pre-filled Application Form. It would create one of those priceless, unforgettable Christmas moments.